On the eve of the 62nd Anniversary of the closure of the old Belfast & County Down Railway lines on the 15th January, the Downpatrick & Co. Down Railway is relaunching it’s annual appeal for artefacts.
Railway volunteer and photo archivist Robert Gardiner explained that it is important that things like photographs are recorded and preserved to show what life on the railway was like before the line was closed in 1950, and used to run from Belfast to between towns like Comber, Newtownards, Downpatrick, Newcastle and Ardglass.
“We’re really the first generation that takes photos on a daily basis,” he said. “We take photos on our mobiles, we can email them and share them with hundreds of people on the internet”.
“But back then taking photographs was not cheap, they were planned and meant to be important records of the people, buildings and trains of the day.”
“We are also on the lookout for things like uniforms, tickets, posters, anything connected to the local railway. So as people will be in their lofts putting away their Christmas decorations – have a look in that old trunk in the back, or that old album.”
He continues, “These things were meant to last, but all too often we find that they don’t – the people who took them pass away and families throw them out because they’re thought to have no historical value or importance.”
“Indeed, everyone in the DCDR and in the wider railway fraternity knows of at least one story where something has been lost, forgotten or binned”.
Mr Gardiner recalls one particular story, “There’s a story told to us of a man who took cine film of the last train pulling out of Newcastle on January 15th 1950, but never let anyone copy it. He passed away in the 1980s and when people enquired about obtaining the film they found that his wife had skipped it, thinking ‘sure nobody would be interested in that’.”
“I think everyone gasps in horror when they hear that particular tale,” he says.
“However,” he adds, “We do know that photos often show loved ones and that people often don’t want to part with them which we perfectly understand, which is why we can offer anyone who has railway photographs the chance to have them digitally reproduced by us.”
Mr Gardiner explains, “Although we would very much welcome original prints and negatives, we have in a number of instances actually gone round to someone’s house and professionally scanned the images at extremely high resolution.
“This means the photos never even have to leave your house – we can provide larger reprints of the resulting scan if anyone wants, and the owners can be safe in the knowledge that their precious images have been preserved by a fully accredited museum for future generations to enjoy – so do have a rummage!”
Mr Gardiner went on to explain that it’s absolutely anything with a railway theme, “We also find that people can be very modest about their pictures – they go ‘Oh, they’re not very good, or they’re poor quality’ – don’t worry about that at all, it’s just amazing that the photos exist in the
“We also find that people think that because there’s not a train in shot, that they’re of no interest – believe me, photos that show bridges, carriages, railway staff, passengers can be far more important historically as they show people, the human element of the railways that all too often wasn’t recorded in official photographs, or long lost structures”.
“For instance, we’ve recently come across a fantastic photo collection taken by one of the BCDR’s last cashiers, Robert Dowling, who had a keen interest in photography since the First World War and has recorded some fantastic images of everyday life on the railway. His daughter Rosemary was completely surprised, but delighted that these would have been of interest, and was taken aback that some of the images will form the backbone of our new display in our Carriage Gallery, due to open later this year.”
Mr Gardiner also elaborated on a few areas not covered by existing archives that the Downpatrick & Co. Down Railway is keen to fill.
“The BCDR carried thousands of British and American personnel during the Second World War, but yet we don’t have a single photograph of any UK or US forces on the BCDR, and nor do any of our sister museums,”
Mr. Gardiner adds, “Another area we’re keen to see if anyone has recorded is the Harland & Wolff diesel engine that used to run between Downpatrick and Ardglass during the Forties. There’s plenty of it in its later life at Great Victoria Street after the lines closed, but few of
it on its native turf.
“Distance isn’t an issue, we can come round to where you are, whether you’re in Bangor, Ardglass, Newcastle or further afield!”
“We’re also keen to hear from anyone who has a connection to the BCDR -maybe even a member of staff that we haven’t met before, we’re keen to also record their stories and experiences to provide an oral history of the BCDR,” says Mr. Gardiner.
Anyone with any photographs, or any other BCDR items or artefacts, or knows someone who might be able to help is urged to contact us.